Liberal MP Alexandra Mendes says MPs should set up an informal, cross-party support system on the Hill to address sexual harassment and sexual misconduct as the #MeToo global movement against misogynistic behaviour hits Parliament Hill.
“It’s a bit of perhaps a utopian kind of solution, but [to] kind of start, not a neighbourhood watch, but a harassment watch on the Hill with MPs who are willing to help staffers or other MPs who feel that they’ve been a victim of either sexual harassment or assault, and that we could act as sort of mentors or just a support system for them,” Ms. Mendes (Brossard-Saint-Lambert, Que.) told The Hill Times.
Sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault have “no party colour,” said Ms. Mendes. She said her idea for a more informal support system doesn’t either and would be “for everybody.”
“Sometimes, because I think people who are a victim of either one are very much afraid of going into the formal process [for complaints on the Hill], and maybe they need somebody to shoulder them,” she said, adding those willing to take part in such a system could put “little signs on our [office] doors.”
“Just make it very obvious that we’re there for people who feel they need help,” said Ms. Mendes.
The wider public discourse around the issue of sexual harassment and assault and the outing of high-profile perpetrators, which kicked into high-gear in October 2017 over allegations of rape and sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, shows no signs of slowing down.
Fraught with partisan debates and strategizing, the political arena is in many respects a unique workplace, but the Hill’s historically male-dominated halls of power are all too typical when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct.
The Canadian Press recently conducted an anonymous survey, sent out to 89 female MPs and filled out by 38, about their experiences with sexual harassment or misconduct on Parliament Hill. Of those who responded, 58 per cent said they’d been subject to one or more forms of sexual misconduct while an MP, including inappropriate comments, four of whom said they had experienced sexual harassment and three who said they’d been victims of sexual assault.
From the MPs who answered questions about the perpetrators of such misconduct, 10 said it came from an MP in another political party, while five said it came from an MP within their own caucus.
A majority of respondents—63 per cent—said they don’t think the issue of sexual harassment in politics is different to what’s experienced in any other workplace.
In late 2015, a new, formal MP sexual harassment policy and resolution process was introduced on the Hill on the heels of separate complaints of misconduct raised by two female NDP MPs against two male Liberal MPs. The process allows a victim to raise a complaint with either their respective party whip, or with the House’s chief human resources officer.
Ms. Mendes said the final results of the survey came as no surprise, and is “more or less what we sort of hear in the corridors of the Hill.” While she stressed it’s no different than most other workplaces, she said it’s nonetheless important to be “loud and clear about it,” adding that silence is “the worst friend of women in this instance.”
Along with trying to do something across party lines, involving both male and female colleagues, she said she’d like to see people on the Hill “be much less timid about calling out people when they actually act this way publicly.”
“If there’s no awareness brought to the fact that this [sexual harassment] is also extremely damaging to women’s self-image, and to the way we feel comfortable in the environment we work in, it’s never going to change,” said Ms. Mendes.
“A lot of it also starts at home and the way we educate our children. Courtesy shouldn’t be considered an old-fashioned thing, and courtesy starts with being aware of other people’s feelings,” she said.
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia-Lambton, Ont.) similarly said she was unsurprised by the final results of CP’s anonymous survey of female MPs.
“The results speak truly of what’s happening and I think you can see a turning of political will to go address this on both the part of men and on the part of women,” said Ms. Gladu.
Along with a desire to address the issue on the Hill, Ms. Gladu said she’s noticed colleagues, both in and out of her party caucus, striving to grasp what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour.
“They’re starting to get worried, ‘What can I say, what can I not say?’ But even so, that awareness I think is bringing an increased attention to the issue, and I think that’s good,” she said.
“It’s getting to a place where the awareness of the behaviour and the elimination of the behaviour and the pressure to not behave that way increases, and that’s something that will happen as these issues are brought more and more to the forefront.”
Ms. Gladu also said she hopes more people on the Hill start calling out inappropriate comments or behaviour, loudly and publicly, when they see it, no matter the partisan stripe of the perpetrator or victim.
“It has to be all parties, because it’s not a partisan issue, this is something where we see that it can happen anywhere with anybody,” she said, adding elected officials should “lead by example.”
While new formal processes now exist to tackle complaints of harassment or misconduct on the Hill, for both MPs and for staff, which are akin to processes in place in the private sector, Ms. Gladu said they’re “punishing to the victim, because of the length of time it takes and because essentially the victim is on trial.”
“There are ways to deal with these things that doesn’t shame the victim … you have to be able to sort of use your sense of humour and use your strength of personality to indicate, well that’s totally inappropriate, and let’s move on,” she said.
Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, said given the male-dominated nature of the political arena, “it’s not surprising that women would have had these experiences.”
And while that environment is “evolving and changing” the more women occupy positions of power, the nature of the Hill presents unique challenges to the discussion that’s been raised, she said.
“It’s not that Parliament is so behind, but I think the imperative to change has been less intense than perhaps in some other workplaces,” as a result of partisanship and not wanting to hobble one’s own team, but also because it’s a more “rarefied” workplace and one that is, to a degree, “insulated from some legal norms that do govern other workplaces,” said Ms. Peckford.
“There’s been this sort of sense of immunity and that I think even more than partisanship has been a challenge,” she said.
Ms. Peckford said there needs to be a “collective investment in a culture change,” across party lines by both male and female MPs, but noted that in such “highly partisan environments” that cross-party solidarity can be difficult to achieve.
“It’s really a question of how women can speak about and reflect on their experiences in ways that feel safe and viable for them as partisan elected women, so I don’t think there’s one way of going about this,” she said.
A survey like the one conducted by CP is one way to bring light to the issue, and she said outside organizations, like Equal Voice, similarly “may be better positioned to be advocates because our professional lives aren’t at stake in the same way.”
Liberal MP Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, Ont.) said calling out harassment when it happens “just deals with the symptoms” of the problem, and that the root causes need to be examined and addressed, which ultimately means looking at “how we socialize our children to deal with each other.”
“My fear is that this is going to become so trivialized, because celebrities are coming out of the closet and everybody’s pointing a finger, that it becomes a bit of a circus show and that nobody really understands the depth and the tragic nature of it,” said Ms. Fry.
“When I first came into politics, and as a physician before that, I saw that in fact this was rooted in the whole relationships between men and women over the millennia, when women were actually to be seen and not heard,” she said.
Laws and policies have already been put in place to deal with these “symptoms,” said Ms. Fry, and going forward on the Hill, “what we can do as male and female politicians is to begin with the way we treat each other.”
“We can get women being MPs and ministers and there will still be a lack of respect for them unless we ingrain it and find the root causes and change all of that in the home, in the school, and of course, in the Parliament,” she said.
The Hill Times
Incidents of harassment, misconduct on the Hill made public in 2017
- On Dec. 4, Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.) apologized to Liberal MP Sherry Romanado (Longueuil-Charles-LeMoyne, Que.) in the House of Commons for making an “inappropriate and insensitive” remark when he joked about a “threesome” to her during a photo-op at an event in May in Ottawa. Ms. Romanado, who had raised a complaint through the House’s new MP harassment process resulting in Mr. Bezan’s public apology, subsequently rose in the House and said the comments were “sexual in nature” and had caused her “great stress.”
- In March 2017, Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio (Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel, Que.) came under scrutiny over a comment he made to then Conservative MP Diane Watts at a meeting of the House Public Safety Committee. During the meeting, Ms. Watts’ phone rang, and in response to the ringtone, Mr. Di Iorio said, “Where’s your pole to slide down on?” He has since apologized and said he hadn’t intended to be offensive.
- Conservative MP Karen Vecchio (Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ont.), who had been witness to the incident with Ms. Watts and Mr. Di Iorio, later raised a complaint with her party’s whip, then Conservative MP Gord Brown (Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.), that she’d subsequently faced harassment following this incident. Mr. Brown raised the complaint with Liberal Whip Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) and it was dealt with through confidential mediation.
- In May, former Conservative Senator Don Meredith opted to exit the Upper Chamber after an ethics committee recommended he be expelled over his two-year sexual relationship with a teenager, whom he had met through his capacity as a Pentecostal minister. Mr. Meredith is also facing a separate ethics investigation over an allegation of workplace harassment.
- In August, now Independent MP Darshan Kang (Calgary Skyview, Alta.) resigned from the Liberal caucus after The Hill Times reported allegations of sexual harassment raised by a former staffer in his constituency office, with further allegations later raised by a former employee at Mr. Kang’s constituency office during his time as an Alberta MLA. Mr. Kang has said he did nothing wrong, and was resigning from caucus to focus on clearing his name.
- In September, now former Conservative MP Gerry Ritz apologized to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) after calling her “climate Barbie” on Twitter.